We’re at the start of the semester, energised and ready to tackle the next few months of assessments, exams and growing stress. Coming back from the break, I, personally, have great motivation for the first week, maybe the first two if I’m lucky; after which the stress starts to latch onto me. Earlier this year, I spoke with an internationally renowned leader in the field of Positive Psychology, Doctor Tim Sharp (a.k.a. Dr Happy), on how important it is to start off the semester well and look after our health (mental and physical) from the very beginning—not just when exams or assessments roll around.
Stress is a very normal part of our human experience, but there are a few things we can do to manage and navigate through it.
Planning and preparation
Getting organised for the semester ahead can help to eliminate the scramble to meet deadlines, not knowing when things are due and reduce the anxiety when it comes to tackling those big assessments. As Dr Sharp says, “plan ahead as much as you can, prepare as well as you can [and] get help if you need to … Try not to leave things to the last minute”.
Rest is vital. To put it in Dr Sharp’s words, “Sleep is one of the best study tools. A lot of students often leave things to the last minute and cram overnight, but it’s also harder to concentrate when you [are] exhausted. Your brain isn’t going to work as well as [it would] having had a good night sleep.”
One of the first things that most commonly gets cut out of our routines is exercise. It’s no secret that exercise is good for you beyond just the physical benefits. Exercise releases ‘happy hormones’ or endorphins and Dr Sharp says, “it’s a great stress reliever even during exams or intense periods of study. It’s important to try to keep active, keep exercising”.
Part of looking after ourselves and having the right energy to face our workload comes from our food. Eating healthy is extremely important; don’t just live off ramen or two-minute noodles, vegetables are good.
Consider that it’s not the end of the world
“It’s very important to consider that [set-backs are] a big and important part of life. We all fail, we all mess things up, we all fall over. What’s important is how we respond to that failure.”
Photo: Dr Tim Sharp
“Optimism has been shown to have enormous benefits in every area of our lives. We know optimists are healthier, they’re happier, they perform better [and] they live longer. But what’s important with optimism is … to look at the positives and look at what’s going well, but it’s also to face up to reality. The reality is that when it comes to exams or anything like that, it’s normal to feel stressed and anxious, it’s part of being a human.”
Use stress as motivation
“It’s important to remember that stress has some positive aspects, as long as we don’t let it get out of hand and let it get overwhelming. It’s important to practice stress management, not necessarily stress elimination,” said Dr Sharp, “Some people work better under stress, and [that’s] not necessarily bad; stress can be a good thing, it can motivate us, it can energise us. So we can use that for good.”
Learn to grow from failure
“Failure is a big and important part of life. We all fail, we all mess things up, we all fall over… one failure doesn’t make [you] a complete disaster. It sounds like a cliché, but learning from your mistakes is one of the most valuable things you can do. Sometimes making those mistakes is important. It’s all about framing. At some point it’s going to happen, so embracing failure, embracing imperfection, is part of the solution.”
It’s important to look ahead, not just backwards, and be conscious about your health. Before you feel yourself burning out, be on the lookout for signs.
“They’re different for different people. You might have particular thoughts, or emotions or behaviours, things like drinking a bit more, staying up a bit later, skipping the gym … whatever it is, it’s good if we can identify it and work on it as early as possible.”
For students, stress can often result from a lack of confidence.
“More than 30 per cent of students, don’t have the confidence that they maybe could have … One of the ways to boost confidence is to not be as afraid of failure. What is interesting is that [many] of the most successful people are not afraid of failure. Failure and mistakes can often help us to learn and help us to grow, so in a strange kind of way, one of the ways to grow in confidence is to be prepared to fail, don’t fail on purpose, but be prepared to face it.”
Dr Sharp ended the conversation with some very wise words:
“You regret what you haven’t done, not what you’ve failed at, so just have a go.”
Balancing a job, uni commitments and everything in between can be stressful. If you or someone you know needs some help, Curtin University has a range of mental health resources and support both online and on campus.